Elections are in Japan’s forecast for this year — nationwide local elections in April, the contest for the Liberal Democratic Party presidency in October and perhaps a general election for the House of Representative sometime in between — with a strong possibility of political turbulence along the way.

After the Diet opened its ordinary session late last month, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi delivered a policy speech on Jan. 31 that lacked punch and fell short of public expectations. Newspaper articles and editorials called the speech “backward-looking,” asserting that it “lacked concrete measures” in both domestic and international affairs and that Koizumi’s government was heading downhill.

In stark contrast, the Democratic Party of Japan under Naoto Kan appears to have regained popularity following the fiasco of a leadership election late last year. In debates at plenary sessions and before the Lower House Budget Committee, the party’s secretary general, Katsuya Okada, and younger lawmakers such as Seishi Matsubara, Yukio Edano and Kazuhiro Haraguchi stood up one after the other to interrogate Koizumi and his ministers.

It seems only natural that one newspaper has commented editorially that the prime minister is “running out of breath” and that the government’s public approval rate has fallen to 50 percent from the 70 percent-plus at its inception.

How has that happened? When Koizumi came to power in April 2001, he rode a wave of popularity driven by citizens’ expectations that his articulate and assertive manner of speaking would bode well for domestic and diplomatic matters. But repeated blunders in domestic, international and economic affairs led to a decline in his approval rate.

The biggest failure has been in his economic policy. The increasingly serious recession has hindered his efforts to carry out reforms, as it continues to threaten the livelihoods of people, especially those involved with smaller enterprises.

In the fields of diplomacy and security, he tried to regain popularity by tackling the North Korean abduction issue last fall, but a solution is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, he struggles to dispel the widespread impression that he is being dragged along by hawkish U.S. policies vis-a-vis the Middle East and Iraq. Unlike recent postures by leaders of China, France, Germany and Russia, his attitude shows a total lack of diplomatic skill.

The other side of the coin is that his popularity is still high compared with that of his predecessors, with an approval rate of more than 40 percent. Although unfavorable comments against Koizumi are growing, many point out that there is nobody to replace him. This attitude suggests that the Japanese political landscape is devoid of outstanding leaders and that both the ruling and opposition parties have lost support.

A series of alignment and realignment attempts among some members of the Conservative Party and the Democratic Party starting late last year are but one example of the confusion among politicians ahead of an expected Lower House election sometime after this spring.

Although I quoted some newspapers as saying the government is going downhill, the truth is that the influence of all political parties and politicians has diminished. But can we do nothing but lament the situation?

The first step toward changing this miserable reality is for young politicians of both the governing and opposition groups to cross party lines and form what could be called a union for political reform. Membership should not be limited to central government lawmakers. It is of utmost importance that members of municipal and prefectural assemblies as well as past and present mayors and governors participate so that there are no geographical barriers.

The aim should be to begin transforming Japan from a country of centralization to one of regional autonomy.

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